Nine years after Heath Ledger’s death, members of his inner circle share memories of his zest for life and his troubled final days. Subscribe now for the emotional new details and never-before-seen photos — only in PEOPLE.
He was the guy who would show up at your door unannounced at 7 a.m. for breakfast, or load his friends into a motor home for an impromptu trip to Mexico, or pour everything he had into his work.
In this week’s PEOPLE cover story, Heath Ledger‘s friends and family say the star crackled with life and lived each moment to the fullest before his death at age 28 in 2008.
“I remember him saying, ‘I’ve got a lot to do. I don’t feel like I have much time … I just don’t think I’m going to be around that long,’ ” his longtime friend, hip-hop artist N’fa Forster-Jones, says in Spike TV’s upcoming documentary I Am Heath Ledger, which is set to premiere on Spike TV on May 17 following its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23. (The documentary will also have a special one-night theatrical release on May 3.).
Close friend Matt Amato says Ledger had a kinetic energy with everything he did — whether deeply focusing on his daily game of chess or requiring that his friends join him on the dance floor.
“He demanded that we dance every Friday night at a placed called La Cita,” Amato says. “Every Friday night, no matter what happened, we just had to go dance, and the more people we could bring, the better. It would just be this kind of tribal stomping around — and he was always so happy doing that.”
For more on Heath Ledger, including the revealing new documentary about his life and legacy, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Musician Mia Doi Todd befriended Ledger and his close circle of friends in his final years, and says the star’s “magical” L.A. home was a creative gathering place where the actor would cook pasta Bolognese and people would often stay awake until 4 a.m. before crashing on a couch.
“He liked to have long tables with lots of people,” she says. “It was like a secret space, where you’re safe … a magical little vortex.”
In the year or so before his death, when he was going through “emotional, personal family life [stuff],” Todd says the star organized a last-minute trip to Mexico — packing friends into a rented motor home while still more caravanned behind them.
“He would seize the day,” she says, adding that he was the type of guy who “if you have two days off from shooting [decides] to take a road trip to Mexico and take 30 people rather than stay home and have a latte.”
The world got a taste of that intensity through his work, including his haunting performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, which earned him a posthumous Oscar.
“When he found out he was offered the part of the Joker, he said he immediately smiled and thought to himself, ‘Yes,’ ” recalls Amato. “I asked ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Because there’s a joker inside everyone of us.’ I think he realized that his joker was just beneath the surface and ready to come out. He did dig deep to find it … but I think it was an immediate response for him.”
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Intensity, says Ledger’s sister Kate, is a family trait.
“We have got a lot of non-stop energy in our family,” she says. “We don’t really sit still for long.”
She adds that winding down after a long day on set was especially challenging for him: “I mean, of course he slept, but there were times — particularly when he was working — that it was just hard, because he was just simply like a washing machine on spin cycle.”
Longtime agent and friend Steve Alexander got a taste of that energy when Ledger would spontaneously show up at his house with his infant daughter Matilda at the crack of dawn.
“When Matilda was born, he would come by the house early and hang out and have breakfast,” he recalls. “The phone would ring and he would say, ‘I’m at the gate right outside your house.’ It was part of his energy … he couldn’t sleep, [so] he just got in his car and rolled out.”
Rest long eluded the star, and while some in his inner circle were aware of his issues with sleep medications, they were all shocked when his non-stop energy came to a tragic halt in 2008.
“It was so shocking because he was like a superhuman figure,” says Todd. “But in the same way that Jimi Hendrix passed away, these people who just lived their lives so fully like a James Dean character … just burned up more quickly.”